Couldn’t Get High (Anymore)

Mike Doughty, 2010

Artists get second chances all the time, but no one gets a resurrection.  So, Mike Doughty had only one choice: take the few minutes of the day his head was clear to race out in front of his alcohol and drug addictions, or to continue killing himself.

In The Book of Drugs, a memoir that’s stark in its depiction of family dysfunction, abusive relationships and the incessant hunger for drugs, Doughty centers on the moment he gathered his strength to detox once and for all.

The Book of Drugs is a chronicle of spiraling addiction and, ultimately, recovery. But running parallel to that narrative is the story of Doughty’s musical life and career, the formation and dissolution of his band Soul Coughing and his turn to solo acoustic performances and albums. From the book’s perspective, the divide couldn’t be more blunt: Soul Coughing = drugs, alcohol and abuse; Mike Doughty solo = clean and pure, satisfied with life and making music that reflects his true self.

In concert recently at Tucson, Arizona’s historic Club Congress, Doughty said his book has “lots of groovy drug stories, lots of shitty drug stories and why I hate Soul Coughing.”

So, what’s a fan to do?

Doughty has picked his side, unequivocally, repeatedly stating in his book, during interviews and on stage in the current tour (which functions as a hybrid combining book tour with solo acoustic performances) that he despises his former band.

But where does that leave someone like me, who became a fan of Mike Doughty because of Soul Coughing?

I can’t choose.

The fact of the matter is that Doughty’s hatred of Soul Coughing is completely rational, even if it’s personally disappointing to me.

But what’s impossible as a fan of both Mike Doughty and Soul Coughing is to join him in completely jettisoning those three records he recorded with his former band (who he doesn’t name in the memoir, simply referring to them as sampler player, bass player and drummer.) He may hate Soul Coughing. However, their blend of hip-hop, jazz, beat poetry and New York cool that Doughty himself coined “Deep Slacker Jazz” remains some of the most compelling music I’ve ever heard.

Ruby Vroom was the first album I ever owned that came fresh from the hip underground. Irresistible Bliss was the album that spurred me and five friends to drive four hours roundtrip to see Soul Coughing perform live in Tempe. And El Oso is one of the first records I bought at a midnight sale. I love Soul Coughing for the nostalgia they inspire, as much as I like their music.

This is a point Doughty makes clear in his book. Those fans who come out to shows shouting for his old band’s hits are seeking to relive their own teens or twenties, which is something he can’t bear to do. Fair enough. I won’t toss away my fandom of Soul Coughing, but neither will I force it into the space of my current Mike Doughty fandom.

If abandoning Soul Coughing is a prerequisite to hanging onto Doughty, I’m not willing to go there. But if it’s simply a matter of keeping them in separate realms, of tuning one out while the other is on, and vice versa, then I can manage.

Doughty’s solo records, starting with Skittish (which was such a drastic departure from Soul Coughing’s sound that Doughty released it himself, unable to get his record company interested) offer a run of songs at least as impressive as the band’s three albums do. While more conventional musically — he has termed the style “small rock” — the records feature that same brand of stream-of-consciousness word play and uniquely rhythmic guitar playing that made Soul Coughing so compelling.

I want to say that the fact that Doughty’s now clean has had no impact on the quality of his music. But that desire comes from a place where it’s presumed that sobriety would necessarily lead to an artistic decline. It’s a fallacy that comes from our deeply ingrained collection notion of sex (which Doughty discusses in rapid-fire detail in his memoir,) drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Sobriety has given Doughty the man a way to keep living. But what it has given Doughty’s music is more than simple re-emergence. Always poetic, Doughty’s lyrics for Soul Coughing could be horribly veiled or seem like a mere jumble of words. Now, his lyrics have an entirely new clarity and a dynamic thematic reach. He questions god, spirituality and identity and yearns for life’s big answers, instead of simply trying to sound cool.

The great comedian Bill Hicks has an iconic bit, captured on his Relentless album, about how drugs have done great things for us and how the artists who made all the great records in your own collection were “really fucking high on drugs.” That positive effect Hicks describes certainly seems to be a reality, with countless examples through the years — including Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom, Irresistible Bliss and El Oso. The humor in this observation is obvious. But while Hicks skewers corporate sell-outs and their undignified self-righteousness, he never discusses what’s on the other side of that coin: Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams, and what very well could’ve been Mike Doughty.

Rock star death via the bottle and the needle is a sad convention that the music world consistently glorified for decades. Mourners may never accept the tragedy of a favorite artist dying young, but those same artists are endlessly celebrated, even if only as the tragic figures they are. And their records usually sell better as a consequence.

By contrast, musicians with redemptive stories — Steven Tyler, Ozzy Osbourne —are often mocked or shunned, considered creative husks of what chemical muse drove their artistry. Doughty demonstrates how wrong this reflex can be. Like Bob Dylan and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, he is someone whose creativity was reignited by breaking free from chemical dependency. But whereas Dylan’s reclusiveness after his speed-fueled 1966 world tour and Tweedy’s stint in rehab for addiction to painkillers seemed merely like the ends of chapters, Doughty’s post-addiction work is, as The Book of Drugs implies, a whole new book.

What Doughty has been chasing is his true self, undiluted and independent, free not only from his former bandmates and the heroin, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol that he absorbed daily for years, but also from the music industry that prefers tragic narratives to redemptive ones. Perhaps it stems from a personal commitment to his sobriety as much as it is the result of artistic vision. The fact that Doughty has been able to make such a clear break is practically unheard of.

Doughty is a rarity as an artist, someone who starkly refuses to coast on old hits. The hoard of legacy acts playing casinos and state fairs around the world — sometimes with as few as a single original member — prove that it’s a lucrative pastime, as do the indie-rock stalwarts whose reunions in recent years have seen them selling more tickets for a nostalgia trip than they ever did in their prime.

What Doughty did was to take a fan base that he’d built up with Soul Coughing, let go of those who weren’t willing to stick around for just him, and then build from there, writing, recording, touring and blogging on his own terms.

At Club Congress, Doughty opened with Unsingable Name and Madeline and Nine, two of the best song he’s ever written. In a performance stretching two hours, Doughty played storyteller and host as well as musician. He gladly takes questions from the audience, knowing full well that despite saying “I hate questions about Soul Coughing” he’ll nonetheless continue getting them.

But as those questions recede and Doughty retunes his guitar, the spark is obvious. It’s why he plays music, why he laid the worst moments of his life bare in a memoir, why driving all around the country at 41, a dozen years into his solo career, and why he’s playing a small club on a Sunday night: Mike Doughty is a tremendous songwriter and musician and despite all the twists and turns, he’s living his dream. While it might not be the sort of dream that familiarity with the music business has led us to expect, it’s it’s all the more inspiring for its health, honesty and dedication.

 Photograph courtesy of 92YTribeca. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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